This year marks the 115th anniversary of the arrival of the “First Fifteen” Sakadas (Filipino contract laborers) in Hawaii. Recruited by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association, those 15 men sailed from Ilocos Sur aboard the S.S. Doric and arrived in Honolulu on Dec. 20, 1906. Over the next 40 years, they were followed by 125,000 sakadas seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
At the same time, mostly during the 1920s, California’s Central Valley welcomed more than 30,000 Filipino laborers to its farms. They were not, however, the first Filipinos to arrive on U.S. shores. Not by a long shot.
On Oct. 18, 1587, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza sailed into Morro Bay, in what is now San Luis Obispo County. The landing party included a crew of Filipino sailors, called “Luzones Indios” by the Spaniards. Four hundred years later, in recognition of that first arrival, the Filipino American National Historical Society established the month of October as Filipino American History Month. Another couple of decades passed before the month was officially designated by the states of California (2006) and Hawaii (2008), and then by Congress in 2009.
Nationwide, Filipino Americans make up about 1.5 percent of the country’s population. Here in Hawaii, of course, the percentage is more than 10 times that. And in California, Filipinos are now the largest Asian group, numbering over 1 million. Yet, even there, the historical society and other advocacy and groups acknowledge that most folks — including Pinoys — are unaware of the significant contributions made by Filipino Americans like Larry Itliong.
Born in San Nicolas, Philippines, Itliong immigrated to the U.S. in 1929 as a young teen. Working in canneries and on farms in Alaska and along the West Coast, he became a passionate and charismatic labor leader and civil rights activist. It was he who started the famous Delano Grape Strike in 1965, leading more than 2,000 Filipino farmworkers in their demands for $1.40 an hour and the right to form a union. Itliong convinced Cesar Chavez and his newly organized group of Mexican American workers to join forces with the Filipinos. The merger of the two groups birthed the United Farm Workers union.
Two hundred years earlier, in what is now Louisiana, Filipino fishermen established the very first Asian American settlement, a fishing village called Saint Malo. Named for Juan San Malo, a leader of runaway African slaves who took refuge in the marshlands of Louisiana, the settlement was founded by Filipinos who escaped servitude aboard Spanish galleons in the mid-1700s. From as early as the 16th century, many Filipino sailors and indentured servants jumped ship and settled across Mexico and the Gulf area. Called “Indios Chinos” in Mexico, they became known as the “Manilamen” in Louisiana. According to History.com, the Louisiana Manilamen took part in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans and fought under the command of Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812.
Those are just a couple of tidbits that pop up when you do an online search for “Filipino American history.” Consider yourself warned: this is a fascinating, 400-year-long rabbit hole, even if — like me — you aren’t of Filipino heritage.
Looking for local commemorative activities for this month, I found only one resource. ‘Ulu’ulu: The Henry Ku’ualoha Giugni Moving Image Archive of Hawai’i has compiled archival footage showcasing Hawaii’s Filipino community, including a 1989 interview with then-Lt. Gov. Ben Cayetano and a sampling of the Kahului Filipino Community Association’s 5th annual Miss Sampaguita Contest (1979). The video collection may be found at uluulu.hawaii.edu/themes/filipino-american-history-month.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM and KEWE 97.9 FM/1240 AM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.